How (not) to engage with authoritarian states

How (not) to engage with authoritarian states

This report examines how states that are committed to strengthening democracy engage with authoritarian states – and how this can strengthen authoritarianism. It outlines how pro-democracy governments can better engage with authoritarian states to avoid doing democratic harm and ultimately strengthen democracy around the world.
The front cover of the report which has the words how not to engage with authoritarian states in large letters above the names of the authors and the WFD and FCDO logos
The world is in a prolonged democratic recession, with dire consequences for everyone. Despite this, when countries decide where to send official development assistance (ODA) funding, whether the recipient is a democracy is not a big factor in their decisions. 79% of aid went to autocracies in 2019.
Engaging with authoritarian states without a clear plan for how to avoid doing harm risks entrenching authoritarian rule by legitimising or supporting parts and/or practices of repressive regimes. Authoritarians can manipulate aid budgets and democracy promotion efforts, or pick and choose from donors, in ways that least threaten their regimes.
What is more, democratic initiatives supported by Western states are often outweighed by their everyday engagements with authoritarian partners – from trade deals to joint security programmes. Pro-democracy governments are often willing to sacrifice progress towards democracy for other goals, such as stability, anticorruption, or development, especially with geostrategically important partners.
The report identifies six major pitfalls in the way that pro-democracy governments currently engage with authoritarian states. These developments exacerbate existing challenges, emboldening autocrats around the globe. Yet, cutting off ties with authoritarian regimes is not an option.
This report also sets out recommendations for how pro-democracy governments can engage with authoritarian regimes in a way that creates the greatest opportunities for democratic strengthening.


    The world is in a prolonged democratic recession. Every year for almost two decades, more countries have moved towards authoritarianism than towards democracy. Yet despite this – and despite loud calls for western governments to pay greater attention to the strategies and methods they use to strengthen democracy – a recent review of ODA flows concluded that “the regime type does not appear to weigh heavily on ODA allocation decisions”. Partly a result, the proportion of aid funds going to autocracies increased from 64% in 2010 to 79% in 2019.

    More alarming still, engaging with authoritarian states without a clear plan for how to avoid doing harm may entrench authoritarian rule. It can, for example, legitimise or inadvertently support parts and/or practices of repressive regimes. Exemplifying this pattern, both Ethiopia and Rwanda were “donor darlings” and received long-term development funding and military support before becoming embroiled in destabilizing conflicts – in the Ethiopian case in Tigray, in the Rwandan case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – and refusing to undertake meaningful democratic reforms. As we move forwards, Ethiopia and Rwanda may prove to be the canary in the coal mine.

    This highlights a key point: the democratic initiatives supported by western states are often outweighed by the sum total of all of the other ways that they routinely engage with authoritarian partners – what we call “everyday engagement”. This complex web of agreements, negotiations and contacts includes diplomatic relations, trade deals, environmental treaties, joint security programmes, and much more.

    Disengaging from authoritarian regimes is not really an option, which means that it is imperative to develop a better understanding of the options available to policymakers, and their deeper political consequences. At present this task is hampered by the fact that policy analysis has tended to discuss a common range of tools across both low-quality democracies and staunch autocracies. Meanwhile, academic studies provide little help to policymakers because there have been few attempts to assess the specific programmes through which pro-democracy doors engage authoritarianism. This paper seeks to fill both gaps by bringing together the latest academic and policy research to address the following four questions:

    1. How do western states engage with authoritarian states?
    2. Which aspects of these engagements contribute to authoritarianism and how?
    3. How can pro-democracy governments better engage with authoritarian regimes to strengthen democracy or at a minimum do no harm?
    4. How does the political context shape the most effective response?

    How western governments strengthen authoritarian regimes

    By “pro-democracy” governments we mean those that are officially – i.e., rhetorically – committed to strengthening democracy around the world, although their actions may often undermine this goal in practice. Indeed, drawing on a comprehensive survey of over 250 policy and academic sources in the English literature, case studies of key paradigmatic cases, and decades of research in states with different authoritarian profiles, we identify a number of ways that western governments strengthen authoritarian regimes.

    Two main arguments explain why problematic practices persist. The first pertains to the bureaucratic politics of aid delivery, where bureaucratic incentives such as ensuring the effective implementation of programmes, and the need to generate positive outcomes, trump concerns such as the quality of democracy. This bureaucratic rationale is particularly powerful where policymakers and bureaucrats both come to see technical results as being easier to achieve and demonstrate than a political one.

    The second explanation focuses on the tendency to prioritise stability and security in foreign policy, which is generally a primary source of inconsistency in the approach of western states. Though pro-democracy governments rhetorically place stability, development, and democracy on equal footing, they are often willing to sacrifice progress towards democracy for other goals, especially with geostrategically important partners.

    When it comes to relationships between pro-democracy governments and authoritarian partners, we emphasise the ability of the latter to manipulate both aid budgets and democracy promotion efforts. A combination of authoritarian learning and the growing diversity of international donors has enabled authoritarian governments to present themselves as allies on issues of importance to certain funders that they know will not impact on the key structures that sustain their regime. In some of the worst cases, this has led to democracy strengthening work being fully subverted for authoritarian purposes.

    These tendencies have been exacerbated by the increasingly multi-polar nature of the global international system in four main ways:

    First, authoritarian aid recipients now have a far greater range of donors and international institutions to appeal to for financial assistance, enabling them to select the partnerships that require them to implement the least threatening set of political reforms.

    Second, the success of authoritarian development models – for example in China (a one-party state) and Rwanda (a heavily controlled multiparty system) – has led to a growing willingness to question the need for democratic politics when it comes to achieving development.

    Third, some pro-democracy governments have become more tolerant of forms of authoritarianism, especially in cases in which it is seen to have reduced the level of corruption.

    Fourth, Western states will become increasingly tempted to sacrifice democracy on the altar of security as foreign policy comes to be dictated by the imperative of creating alliances to counteract the perceived threat from China and Russia.

    Taken together, these developments have exacerbated existing challenges, emboldening autocrats around the globe.


    Incoherence and inconsistency play into the hands of autocrats.

    The failure of some pro-democracy governments to either consistently promote democracy abroad, or uphold it at home, undermines their reputations, leading to accusations of hypocrisy. 

    Technical solutions to political problems do not deliver meaningful change.

    Donors often adopt a technical approach to development in part because it is more politically feasible, but this overlooks the political roots of democratic and developmental failures.

    Prioritising outcomes over processes undermines sustainable improvements.

    Pro-democracy governments determined to generate clear “successes” have often focused on outcomes rather than processes, overlooking the ways that certain kinds of development and security “wins” are achieved in ways that entrench authoritarian rule and often prove unsustainable.

    Focusing on “big bang” authoritarian change ignores the way that most authoritarian governments emerge and entrench themselves.

    Western states are far less likely to react when authoritarian backsliding is slower and takes place over a longer period – which is problematic because gradual erosion is the most common form of autocratisation.

    Premature celebration of reform can legitimise repressive regimes that do not intend to change substantially.

    In addition to growing timidity, there has been a tendency for development agencies to rush to celebrate supposedly reformist regimes even though they have made few meaningful changes, conferring unwarranted legitimacy on governments that remain inefficient and repressive.

    Adopting different strategies for state and non-state actors overlooks how they shape one another.

    Another common pitfall is to imagine that authoritarian rule is solely rooted in formal political institutions, and to pay insufficient attention to how it reshapes informal institutions and the way that society function. This often leads to the flawed assumption that business, civil society, and religious groups are independent actors motivated to check authoritarian excesses, when in fact they may be heavily compromised and serve as part of the foundation of the regime itself. 

    Case studies

    In order to illustrate how these pitfalls play out in practice, this report provides case studies of four different example of international engagement. In Pakistan, security-driven international assistance strengthened the position of the military within the country’s fragile political economy, reducing the prospects for democratisation. In Rwanda, western states focused heavily on stability and effectiveness, prioritising developmental gains and the absence of conflict over democracy – investing in programmes that entrenched the regime’s control even though they were framed as enhancing accountability.

    This is not always the way things play out, however, and to provide positive examples of how international actors can play a more positive role we look at the cases of North Macedonia and Ecuador. While democratic gains in both countries were predominantly driven from below, the ability of pro-democracy governments to operate flexibly and take advantage of windows of opportunity – most notably when more reform-minded leaders came to power – encouraged and strengthened democratic developments. This included the adoption of a new approach to European Union accession by EU states in North Macedonia and brokering more positive ties between the government and non-state actors in Ecuador – playing a valuable “bridging” role between the state and civil society. The democratic gains secured through this engagement were limited and remain vulnerable to reversal, but nonetheless demonstrate the capacity of western states to help reverse processes of backsliding under the right conditions.


    Engage more consistently and coherently

    Faced with the extensive challenges of engaging with authoritarian regimes, some pro-democracy governments may feel that the best course of action would be to simply cease engaging with them – especially when autocratisation accelerates. But in practice this is both unhelpful and unfeasible. Instead, western states need to continue to engage, but to do so in a way that puts their commitment to democracy front and centre. This must not mean “business as usual”. Instead, it is critical that international engagement becomes more consistent in two respects. First, pro-democracy governments need to recognise that behaving in very different ways in different countries, especially for geostrategic or economic reasons, undermines their legitimacy and credibility, and hence their influence. Second, they need to act more consistently within individual countries – including their own.

    Demonstrate belief in, and the benefits of, democracy

    It is critical that western states make the case that democratic government is essential for future economic prosperity, peace, and an effective and coherent international community that can respond to global challenges such as climate change. Many of the greatest challenges facing the world are the product of authoritarian rule. Democracies have been shown, for example, to generate less conflict, generate higher levels of economic growth, and do a better job at fighting climate change. Democracy should therefore not just be understood was one aspect of foreign policy among many, but as a central aim that facilitates the achievement of other goals.

    Understand the limitations of technical programming

    Donors must recognise that the challenges of engaging with authoritarian governments cannot be sidestepped by focussing on technical projects or sectors and shift their working practices accordingly. This point is the central thesis of the Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) community. To be successful, projects either need to align with, or manage to change, the interests and incentives of the politicians, bureaucrats, and officials whose support is necessary for effective implementation. Failure to do this means that often otherwise well-planned programmes deliver disappointing results. Yet while there is now widespread acceptance of the need to adopt problem-based approaches there is less evidence that programme design has shifted to reflect this new way of thinking. It is therefore critical that pro-democracy governments train staff in these new techniques and transform how programmes are designed and commissioned to ensure that they consider the need to think and work politically in all forms of engagement with authoritarian states. This may mean, for example, ensuring that new economic or military agreements are subject to widespread public participation, civil society engagement, and legislative scrutiny, bolstering democratic processes rather than adding further levels of secrecy and opacity to key political decisions.

    Calculate and offset the cost of everyday engagement

    Understanding the damage pro-democracy governments do is a critical first step to reducing it. This means that it is critical to calculate the cost of everyday engagement for democracy and human rights, so that trade-offs are explicit, and so that actions can be taken to ensure that everyday engagement does not result in the violation of key principles and undermine the core of democracy strengthening programmes. In other words, western states must ensure they do no harm. One way to do this would be to conduct a democratic risk assessment for all major programmes, identifying the direct and indirect ways they might be used to strengthen authoritarian rule. What mitigating strategies will be most effective will depend on the specific programme and country, but a good example would be recognising the potential for security legislation – for example anti-terror and anti-hate speech measures – to be manipulated and used to target civil society groups and critical voices, and only supporting it if strong safeguards are put into place simultaneously.

    Anticipate authoritarian efforts to circumvent democratic demands

    Pro-democracy governments need to expect that authoritarian leaders will seek to subvert democratic reform process, and design them accordingly. This is likely to require four steps: avoiding the trap of low expectations, undertaking a historical and political economy analysis to understand the areas in which reforms have been most likely to be subverted, breaking out of repeated cycles of failure by looking for new ways to increase influence and leverage, and ensuring that if red lines are stipulated and violated, agreed measures – such as aid suspension – are implemented. Staying engaged is important, but operating in a consistent manner is an important signal that reinforces the value of democracy.

    Prioritise cases of gradual democratic erosion

    It is essential to refocus attention on the dangers posed by gradual democratic erosion, and to find mechanisms to strengthen anti-authoritarian forces in a way that does not expose them to further backlash. This will involve at least three steps. First, developing a clearer and more unified methodology for identifying gradual backsliding – which is partly overlooked precisely because it is less obvious. Second, evolving a set of responses designed to strengthen remaining democratic institutions while reducing the risk of further atrophy. Third, working flexibly with a greater number and type of organisations to build broader support for key goals and offset the risk that any particular institution or group will be targeted with retributive measures.

    Differentiate democratic strengthening from preventing authoritarian backsliding

    Distinctive strategies need to be cultivated to deal with authoritarian backsliding as compared to supporting low quality democracies. Pro-democracy governments are likely to find greater common ground with leaders in a country moving slowly towards democracy, while in autocratising contexts intervention will be more controversial and liable to subversion. A more widespread and careful intervention – including a reconfiguration of everyday engagement with authoritarian counterparts – is likely to be necessary to reconfigure incentive structures and persuade political elites to choose reform.

    Other language versions

    The executive summary is also available in French.